The hid­den fig­ures of WWII code-break­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Elaine Showal­ter is pro­fes­sor emerita of English at Prince­ton Univer­sity. Her most re­cent book is “The Civil Wars of Ju­lia Ward Howe: A Biography.” RE­VIEW BY ELAINE SHOWAL­TER

In the past few years, for­got­ten women of sci­ence, from the gen­teel astronomers who clas­si­fied the stars at the Har­vard Ob­ser­va­tory in the 1890s to the African Amer­i­can math­e­ma­ti­cians who staffed NASA in the 1960s, have been res­cued and cel­e­brated. If you cheered the re­cov­ery of these re­mark­able pioneers, you will love read­ing about the women re­cruited by the Army and the Navy dur­ing World War II and trained in se­cret pro­grams to break Ja­panese and Ger­man mil­i­tary codes. In “Code Girls,” jour­nal­ist Liza Mundy tells the ir­re­sistible tale of the fe­male cryp­tog­ra­phers who learned to crack these di­a­bol­i­cally dif­fi­cult sys­tems. Be­ing cho­sen for this mis­sion changed the lives of more than 10,000 young Amer­i­can women, took them out of their fa­mil­iar sur­round­ings and pre­scribed des­tinies, and of­fered them a thrilling op­por­tu­nity to do ur­gent war work at the na­tion’s cen­ter.

But they took vows of se­crecy, and this vast en­ter­prise has been hid­den for al­most 70 years. In her re­search to un­cover it, Mundy ex­am­ined col­lec­tions in the Na­tional Ar­chives in Col­lege Park, Md., found dozens of re­cently de­clas­si­fied and archived oral his­to­ries, and tracked down 20 sur­viv­ing code girls, cen­ter­ing on the in­trepid Dot Braden Bruce, a Ran­dolph-Ma­con Woman’s Col­lege grad­u­ate and high school teacher from Vir­ginia, who is still a fire­cracker at 96. Mundy skill­fully in­ter­weaves the his­tory of the war and the evo­lu­tion of mod­ern mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence with the daily lives of the women who were rac­ing to de­ci­pher the mes­sages of the en­emy, while deal­ing with bu­reau­cratic ri­val­ries, ad­min­is­tra­tive sex­ism, ro­mance and heart­break on the home front.

Af­ter Pearl Har­bor, the mil­i­tary de­cided to build up its small in­tel­li­gence op­er­a­tion by bring­ing fe­male col­lege grad­u­ates to Wash­ing­ton and teach­ing them crypt­anal­y­sis, codes and ci­phers. The Army and the Navy com­peted with each other to find and re­cruit the most tal­ented. In 1942, only about 4 per­cent of Amer­i­can women had grad­u­ated from a fouryear col­lege. The elite Seven Sis­ter col­leges had their finest hour as the Navy tapped their pres­i­dents, deans and fac­ulty to iden­tify top stu­dents in math­e­mat­ics, sci­ence and lan­guages. Bryn Mawr Pres­i­dent Katherine E. McBride noted that the war was cre­at­ing un­prece­dented op­por­tu­ni­ties for highly ed­u­cated women: “There is a new sit­u­a­tion for women here, a de­mand that has never ex­isted for them be­fore.”

Once they were set­tled in their hastily adapted dor­mi­to­ries in Wash­ing­ton and Ar­ling­ton, Va., the re­cruits ran early com­put­ers, built li­braries, trans­lated doc­u­ments and formed teams to solve the elab­o­rate, ev­er­chang­ing codes of the Ja­panese navy. The wa­ter-trans­port codes, which came from the mer­chant ships go­ing around the Pa­cific to sup­ply troops, were par­tic­u­larly use­ful. In 1944, the code-break­ers in­ter­cepted 30,000 wa­ter-trans­port mes­sages a month, a del­uge of num­bers that they mirac­u­lously man­aged to solve through an in­ten­sive search for pat­terns and some “golden” guesses. That in­for­ma­tion en­abled the Navy to pin­point and sink al­most ev­ery sup­ply ship head­ing to the Philip­pines or the South Pa­cific. Be­fore D-Day, the teams par­tic­i­pated in the ef­fort to give the Ger­mans false in­for­ma­tion and fake ra­dio traf­fic about the site of the Al­lied land­ing.

Ini­tially the women came to Wash­ing­ton as civil­ians, but in May 1942, the Army ac­cepted them into mil­i­tary ser­vice with the WACs — the Women’s Aux­il­iary Corps. The Navy took longer to set up a women’s re­serve; in­deed, as Vir­ginia Gilder­sleeve, dean of Barnard Col­lege, re­called, some of the older of­fi­cers be­lieved that “ad­mit­ting women into the Navy would break up homes and amount to a step back­ward in civ­i­liza­tion.” But the Navy got a boost when an English pro­fes­sor from Barnard chris­tened its fe­male aux­il­iary the WAVES: Women Ac­cepted for Vol­un­teer Emer­gency Ser­vice. The pres­i­dent of Welles­ley be­came its first com­man­der, and the French-Amer­i­can cou­turier Main­bocher was brought in to de­sign its dash­ingly fit­ted uni­form, which, some felt, was “the most flat­ter­ing piece of cloth­ing they ever owned.” The Navy’s fe­male code­break­ers had the op­por­tu­nity to be­come com­mis­sioned of­fi­cers; they went to boot camp at Smith, Mount Holyoke and Hunter; cut their hair short; and were sub­ject to harsh naval dis­ci­pline. But they loved the pride and ca­ma­raderie, and in a year there were 4,000 code­break­ers at the WAVES Bar­racks D across New Mex­ico Av­enue, work­ing three shifts a day, march­ing and singing “I don’t need a man to give me sym­pa­thy/ Why I needed it be­fore is a mys­tery.”

Not ev­ery­thing was tri­umphant. A co­hort of code girls was still seen by some mil­i­tary ad­min­is­tra­tors as ex­tra sec­re­taries, cute mas­cots or nat­u­ral drudges. The code-breaker Ann Caracristi re­mem­bered that “it was gen­er­ally be­lieved that women were good at do­ing te­dious work, and . . . the ini­tial stages of crypt­anal­y­sis were very te­dious, in­deed.” More­over, women were sub­ject to stricter sex­ual and so­cial pun­ish­ment than their broth­ers and boyfriends. Les­bian­ism, abor­tion, preg­nancy — even for mar­ried women — meant dis­charge. And af­ter the war, women were ex­pected to give up their jobs, go home and start hav­ing ba­bies again. A few code girls went on to high po­si­tions at the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency, but as a co­hort, their post­war job op­por­tu­ni­ties and their chances for fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion un­der the GI Bill were mixed at best.

Still, they cher­ished their ex­pe­ri­ence. Ann White re­flected that “never in my life since have I felt as chal­lenged as dur­ing that pe­riod. . . . When the needs of so­ci­ety and the needs of an in­di­vid­ual come to­gether, we were ful­filled.”

We owe Mundy grat­i­tude for res­cu­ing these hid­den fig­ures from ob­scu­rity. Even more valu­able is her chal­lenge to the myth of the ec­cen­tric, in­spired, soli­tary male ge­nius, like Alan Tur­ing. As Mundy demon­strates, code­break­ing in World War II “was a gi­gan­tic team ef­fort,” and “ge­nius it­self is of­ten a col­lec­tive phe­nom­e­non.” Codes were bro­ken by the pa­tient la­bor of groups of peo­ple “trad­ing pieces of things they have learned and no­ticed and col­lected.” I sus­pect there are more sto­ries of hid­den fig­ures wait­ing to be told. But in writ­ing this book, Mundy has bro­ken some of the codes that kept them hid­den for so long.


In­tel­li­gence an­a­lysts work to de­ci­pher coded Ja­panese mes­sages at the head­quar­ters of the Army crypt­anal­y­sis ser­vice in Ar­ling­ton, Va., in 1944.

CODE GIRLS The Un­told Story of the Amer­i­can Women Code Break­ers of World War II By Liza Mundy Ha­chette. 416 pp. $28

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